Agency: What It Is & Why Your Pet Needs It

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A few weeks ago there was a discussion in our Enrichment for Pet Behavior Issues Community Facebook group where I realized that I’ve never actually written a post about agency itself. Sure, I’ve included this topic in other posts but I’ve never devoted an entire post to this topic alone. It’s about time that changed! So this week is solely devoted to a topic that I don’t think gets near enough attention in the pet community: agency.


What is agency?

Agency is the ability to have some level of control in our environment and be able to make choices that will result in a desirable outcome. One of the important factors here is that agency requires at least two desirable choices. A “cake or death” decision a la Eddie Izzard doesn’t fly. 


Doesn’t meet the 2+ desirable choices criterion


A pet example of a choice that fits the criteria would be the choice to sleep on comfy bed A or on comfy bed B. An example of a choice that doesn’t fit the criteria would be come when I call or get shocked. Make no mistake, though, it’s entirely possible to use food coercively as well. Such as, you can have delicious treats but only if you approach a person you find scary. Those examples don’t have at least two great choices to choose from. 


Why agency is important

There are so many reasons why agency is important that it would take me an entire book chapter to explain them all 😉 The short answer is it’s helpful in:

  • Combating learned helplessness
  • Creating resilience
  • Improving behavioral health
  • Improving quality of life (I don’t have research to back this bullet point up since “quality of life” is pretty subjective, but I think it’s safe to say that this is likely true from an anecdotal capacity and if we look at all the other things agency does for an individual.)

On a more practical note, having agency can be huge when it comes to how an individual reacts in certain situations. Here’s the example I use with my clients to illustrate this point:

Say that you’re at an educational wildlife event. The presenter is holding a snake. You hang out at the back of the room, fearful to move closer. The presenter continues talking about the snake they’re holding and offers for anyone to touch the snake who would like to do so. By the end of the presentation you’ve made your way to the front of the room and touch the snake. This was not a scary experience because you had full control over whether or not you put your hand on the snake. 

Now, let’s say you’re having a picnic. You’re sitting and chatting with your friends when you put your hand down– right on top of a snake. Chances are you’re not okay with this scenario, even though it’s the exact same behavior– hand on snake– as above. You may scream, run away, or perform some other fight or flight behavior. The difference between these scenarios is that you didn’t have the choice to touch the snake in the picnic but did in the presentation. 

We seem to see this with our pets, too. I often see reactive dogs who are far less reactive when they’re able to move away from the scary thing than when they’re made to sit there and watch it. Or dogs with separation anxiety who display fewer stress-related behaviors or less intense stress-related behaviors when they’re given more space to move about in the house (though, confinement anxiety is also a thing). While we can’t necessarily ask our pets in these situations if it’s agency that’s truly causing the change in behavior, we see it consistently enough that it’s a valid hypothesis. 


How can I provide more choices in my pet’s life?

There are so many ways to do this and we have a lot of examples in our book, Canine Enrichment for the Real World. Here are some easy options:

  • Multiple sleeping areas to choose from
  • Being able to choose where they go and what they sniff on a walk
  • Food preference tests
  • Toy preference tests

Here are couple that are more involved but also allow for even more agency in situations where it really counts:

  • Cooperative care & start button behaviors for medical and grooming procedures
  • Being able to choose whether or not they move closer to a stressor– without luring with food


But… what if they make poor choices?

Agency doesn’t mean that your pet has full authority to do whatever they want. If you have a pet who bites people coming into the house they still need to be managed to ensure they don’t bite people coming into the house. We should not diminish safety to increase choice. 

Agency means providing choices that don’t compromise safety, physical health, mental or behavioral health, or enable them to practice unwanted behaviors. That sometimes means that our pets may not have multiple choices in a situation. When that happens we can acknowledge that and work on training a skill that allows our pet to have choices in future similar situations. For example, a dog who doesn’t have a rock solid recall (come when called) shouldn’t be off-leash even though being off-leash allows for more agency. Instead of resigning to that, we can work on training a rock solid recall for future use. 


Now what?

  • Assess the choices your pet currently has. Don’t be critical or hard on yourself; we’re simply assessing to see where we have room for improvement. 
  • In those areas where you find your pet doesn’t have agency, ask yourself why that is. Is it to mitigate safety concerns? Is it to mitigate unwanted behaviors? Or, are there situations where you’re not quite sure or because it’s what someone once recommended or you think it’s what you should be doing? Keep probing until you find those answers. 
  • If you’re newer to agency and thinking about your pet’s choices, choose one of those easier situations to increase your pet’s desirable choices. 
  • If this is something that you’ve been working on or thinking about for a while, you may want to consider one of the more involved options. Cooperative care is a great place to start for almost everyone. 
  • If you’re interested in learning more about agency and how to incorporate it into your pet’s life, check out our book Canine Enrichment for the Real World and be sure to join us in our Facebook group.


Happy training!


December 2020 Training Challenge: Holiday Safety

It’s time for our last training challenge of 2020! Keeping with our holiday and enrichment theme from last month, this month’s training challenge is inspired by the “Safety” chapter of our book, Canine Enrichment for the Real World


Create a holiday safety enrichment plan


Holidays often bring about a lot of décor changes within our homes and some of those changes are safer than others. Plants like poinsettias and mistletoe are toxic to our furry family members (and us). Candles and wagging tails present fire hazards. Extra candies around the house make for prime counter surfing targets. 

Then there are those holiday decorations that aren’t necessarily dangerous in and of themselves, but that we still need to include in holiday safety plans, like Christmas trees. Or things like decorations with sentimental value that need to be protected from our pets rather than the other way around. And that’s just the decorations!

Here are 7 tips to creating your holiday safety enrichment plan:


  1. Manage during meals. Just like we talked about last month with Thanksgiving, sometimes management during family meals is the easiest solution. Set up the environment to keep your pet out of the kitchen or in another room entirely during holiday meal prep and eating if need be.
  2. Manage stranger danger issues. Holiday parties are not a great time to work on your pet’s stranger danger issues. This is probably not as much of a problem with this year’s holidays, but something to keep in mind for the future. Put your pet completely away so that you don’t have to worry about anyone’s safety while you’re celebrating. They’ll be happy to be away from the festivities, too.
  3. Keep ornaments, lights, and tinsel off the bottom branches of your tree. All can pose as hazards, whether ingested, tangled up in, or knocked off by your pet.
  4. Keep candles out of reach. This is easier said than done for those of you with cats in your home. 
  5. Keep hazardous gifts out of reach. Make a note of any gifts (especially food items) that are hazardous for your pet to get into and ask anyone else sending gifts if their presents should be kept out of reach too. 
  6. Watch the wires. Make sure that wires are well-hidden from pets who are prone to chewing. 
  7. Exercise pens are a Christmas tree’s best friend. Do you have a dog who’s a little too interested in your tree? Put a free-standing baby gate or exercise pen around your tree. Here’s the link to an exercise pen that we like (also pictured below). Disclosure: This is an affiliate link. We receive a small commission for purchases made through these links at no extra cost to you. This helps us continue to put out free content to help you and your pets live more harmoniously!

There are, of course, many other things that you may want to include in your holiday safety enrichment plan and each person’s plan is going to look different depending on how they celebrate during this time of year. We’d love to hear what’s included in your plan!


Now what?

  • Decide how you’d like to create your holiday safety enrichment plan. Does it make sense to create it as you decorate? Are there parts you need to plan for before you start?
  • Gather any management tools you need. Pick up baby gates, exercise pens, and the like before you need them. 
  • Discuss your pet’s holiday safety enrichment plan with your entire household and anyone else who is visiting your house. Make sure that everyone is on the same page to limit slip-ups. 
  • Be prepared to tweak your pet’s plan based on how it’s going. The best plans are dynamic. 
  • Share your plan with us on Facebook and Instagram @petharmonytraining 


Happy training & happy holidays!


October 2020 Training Challenge


Part of me can’t believe it’s already October and part of me reminds the first part that this has been the longest year ever. Regardless, it’s time for our October training challenge!

List enrichment strategies you employ while you’re gone and objectively go through the list to determine if those strategies are effective. 

Not only is this training challenge dedicated to the “Independence” chapter of our book, it’s also a great exercise in taking a descriptive vs. prescriptive approach to your enrichment plan. (Note: we decided what the training challenges were going to be well before Covid hit. While you may not be gone at work all day at the moment, this exercise still applies for shorter outings!)


Descriptive vs. Prescriptive

For those of you who’ve heard us speak this year, you’ve heard us talk about taking a descriptive approach to your enrichment plan.

Descriptive: “I see a change in my animal’s behavior because of the activities we’ve done or provided.”

Prescriptive: “I provided an activity for my pet therefore he’s enriched.”

With the descriptive approach, we observe behavior to determine if the activity was effective instead of assuming that it was. Did it actually meet the animal’s needs as we intended? If it did, great! We can keep doing it. If it didn’t, well, then it’s back to the drawing board. Emily wrote a great blog post about this here. It’s not enough for us to just assume that our pet’s needs are being met while we’re gone, we need to actually observe that that’s true. 


How can I tell if those activities are effective?

There are a few ways we can tell if these activities are effective:

  • They’re being used. If you leave a stuffed Kong for your pet and it’s untouched when you return, that’s not an effective strategy. 
  • Watch your pet on video. Want to know if the window film you put up for your pet’s reactivity is actually decreasing reactivity throughout the day? It’s time to break out a recording option and see what your pet is up to during the day. 
    • Recording options can be high-tech, like Furbo and Nest (these are affiliate links), or low-tech, like Skyping or Zooming yourself or setting up a laptop to record shorter absences.
  • Observe your pet’s behavior when you come home. Providing activities while you’re gone can be the determining factor between having an adolescent dog who’s bouncing off the walls when you come home vs. one who’s excited but not uncontrollable. 


Now what?

  • Make a list of the enrichment activities you utilize while your pet is home alone. 
  • Make a list of desirable and undesirable behaviors that you’re hoping these enrichment activities address.
  • Observe your pet’s behavior. Are those activities effective in increasing desirable behaviors and decreasing undesirable behaviors?
  • Adjust your enrichment plan accordingly. 
  • Share your findings with us on social media! @petharmonytraining on Facebook and Instagram


Happy training!


September 2020 Training Challenge

This month’s training challenge was also the September challenge from last year. Apparently September just reminds me of food puzzles! This month’s challenge is:

Teach your pet how to use a new food puzzle

As I mentioned in the beginning of the year (and throughout the other challenges), this year’s training challenges are dedicated to our book Canine Enrichment for the Real World. Each month focuses on a different category of enrichment. This month’s focus is “Mental Exercise”. 

To effectively meet the mental exercise component, make sure that your new puzzle is challenging enough for your pet to employ their problem solving skills but not so challenging that they get frustrated and give up. There’s often a fine line between the two and that’s often why we need to teach our pets how to use their new toy.

From “They Won’t Do It” to “They Love It”

While foraging (searching for food) is a natural behavior for all species, food puzzles aren’t natural. There are no food puzzles growing in the wild so that the ancient dog or cat ancestor learned how to use them and pass that knowledge down to future generations. This is why we frequently need to teach our pets how to use a particular puzzle, especially if they haven’t used one before. 

Check out our video below on how to teach your pet to use a food puzzle:

And here are some tips that I shared in last year’s blog post:

Here are some tips for teaching your pet a new food puzzle:

  • Choose a puzzle with your pet’s preferences in mind. Our pets have preferences just like we do. For instance, Oso is a rough-and-tumble kind of dude. He’s great at the puzzles that he can knock over and roll around with his nose. He doesn’t mind the noise those make though he does prefer to use them on carpeted areas. I know that if I give him a new puzzle he can roll around I don’t need to show him how to to it. However, he’s not as adept at the intricate food puzzles that require a lot of small motions and steps. His way of solving those is dropping them on the floor so they break open (which, while a valid way to solve the puzzle is also expensive to buy replacements.) If I give him a more complicated puzzle I’ll have to teach him first before he can use it without breaking it. 
  • Choose a puzzle with your pet’s experience in mind. Giving a challenging food puzzle to a novice dog is likely to lead to frustration. On the other hand, giving a simple food puzzle to an experienced dog is not going to provide much of a challenge. Think about how much experience your dog has with food puzzles and choose a new one accordingly. 
  • Work up to the most challenging setting. Many puzzles have ways to make them more or less difficult. Instead of starting with the most difficult setting we should work our way up to it by first starting on the easiest, then easy-medium, medium, medium-hard, and finally the hardest setting. This allows our pet to master each setting and build a history of getting food from the puzzle. That history will help them keep at it for longer when it becomes more challenging. 
  • Show them how but try not to do it for them. It was once thought that only primates could learn through watching others but we now know that our pets can do this too! We can encourage them to use their new puzzle by showing them how to get the treats out a few times. Be careful though not to do it every time for them. Some learn that the best way to get the food out is to let the human do it! While that’s a clever solution in using their resources it doesn’t necessarily meet the goal we’re hoping to achieve by introducing a new puzzle. Show them how a few times then let them at it. 
  • Use a higher-value food. Higher-value food helps build more motivation in almost all training scenarios: this is no different! Up the ante when they’re first learning and save the kibble for when they’ve got the hang of it. 

What food puzzle should I try?

Here are some of our favorite store bought options for dogs (Disclosure: These are affiliate links. We receive a small commission for purchases made through these links at no extra cost to you. This helps us continue to put out free content to help you and your pets live more harmoniously!):

Here are some of our favorite store bought options for cats (Disclosure: These are affiliate links. We receive a small commission for purchases made through these links at no extra cost to you. This helps us continue to put out free content to help you and your pets live more harmoniously!): 

Small dogs and cats can often choose between these lists, too!

Don’t forget DIY!

Food puzzles don’t need to break the bank. There are a lot of simple, cheap, DIY options like these:

Now what?

  • Buy and/or make your new puzzle!
  • Teach your pet how to use their new toy, if needed. 
  • Share videos of your pets having fun and using their brains with us on Facebook or Instagram: @petharmonytraining

Happy training!


scent work challenge

May 2020 Training Challenge

For those of you who have been doing training challenges with us for a while, you’ll recognize this one. It’s so beneficial to our pets that I had to bring it back!

Play “Find it” 3x per week

I’m a big fan of “lazy man’s” find it: scatter a bunch of treats or food on the floor and let your pet search for them. I play this with Oso while I’m watching TV at night. He has a great time and I get to relax. Win-win! 

I recommend playing for just 10-15 minutes to start with, 3x/week and see how that impacts your pet’s behavior. For many pets I see that this relatively small amount of scent work is sufficient to decrease attention-seeking behaviors and increase periods of rest. You may decide to increase or decrease how frequently and how long you play for depending on what you see from your pet! And keep in mind that this isn’t just for dogs; there are many species who would love to play this game, too. I’ve known many cats who love this!

Check out our Facebook Live Training Challenge video for instructions on how to teach your pet to play the “lazy man’s” version of “find it”:

Why “Find It”?

There are several reasons why we love this game and it’s one that we recommend to almost all of our clients. Here are some of our favorite reasons:

  • Great for relationship-building, especially for kids.
  • Ticks the box for several categories of enrichment: foraging, mental exercise, and for some individuals the calming category.
  • Fantastic for animals with anxiety, fear, and compulsive behaviors.
  • Can be built upon for behavior modification techniques later.

Now what?

  • Grab some treats and start playing!
  • If your pet doesn’t already have a cue to search for food on the ground, teach them a word or phrase (the video above tells you how).
  • If your pet is already a pro, you can increase the difficulty by playing outside in the grass or by hiding treats under furniture or items. 
  • Make sure you’re only hiding food in places where your pet is allowed to search. For instance, don’t place food on a table or counter if you don’t want your dog to search there normally!
  • Post videos on our Facebook page of your pet searching! We would love to see your pet enjoying this game.

Happy training!


Dog enrichment ideas

April 2020 Training Challenge

We hope you’re all doing well and staying safe in this crazy time! I’m personally really excited about this month’s training challenge as it’s something that I recommend to clients all the time:

Explore DIY Destructible [Trash] Toys

Not only is this a simple and cheap activity, but it’s often great enrichment, too! Dogs were made to destroy and gut things. But, unfortunately for them, we humans don’t love that natural doggy behavior. We get upset when they destroy their toys. We get upset when they steal tissues and paper towels and shred them to pieces. We get even more upset when they destroy our furniture. 

Toys that we purposefully give to dogs to destroy serve a wonderful purpose. Our pets get to do what they were made to do and we don’t get upset with them for it. It’s a win-win! An even larger bonus is that when we allow our pets to express their natural behaviors in appropriate ways, they are less likely to express them in ways that we’ve deemed inappropriate. Yep, that means that you can curb that annoying stealing-tissues-and-playing-keep-away-before-your-dog-inevitably-shreds-it behavior by providing these sort of toys. 

I’m always looking for a cheaper way to provide enrichment for Oso (who LOVES shredding things), so while I’ll occasionally get him stuffed toys to destuff from clearance bins, our go-tos are DIY trash toys. As the name suggests, I make them out of literal trash. Supplies include:

  • Newspaper
  • Toilet paper rolls
  • Paper towel rolls
  • Empty tissue boxes
  • Granola bar, cereal, and similar boxes
  • Take out beverage holders
  • Treats

Check out our video on how to put it all together here:

And here’s a video of Oso enjoying one of those creations:

It’s truly as simple as it sounds!

Now what?

  • Make some of your own destructible trash toys! Watch the above video for tips on how to make them. 
  • Give one to your dog and let them go to town! Watch your pup the first few times you’re giving them new items. While the majority of dogs will not ingest inedible items (especially if you’re not actively trying to get the item away from them), we want to double check to make sure they’re not ingesting them. A little bit of paper swallowed along with the treat isn’t a big deal but we don’t want them eating the whole thing!
  • Routinely provide your dog with these items for a couple of weeks. Do you notice any changes in their behavior? Let us know at [email protected]!
  • As with all challenges, we’ll check in with you on our Facebook page (@petharmonytraining) at the end of the month. Be sure to post pics and videos of your pets enjoying their toys there! 

Happy training!


When is Enrichment Not Enriching?

When Allie and I first started writing our book, Canine Enrichment for the Real World, we had a conversation with Dogwise about what exactly the book would cover. When we submitted the outline, our publisher’s comment was, “This is a lot more comprehensive than I imagined!” And, yes. That’s precisely the point.

The thing about the pet-owning community is that we want to learn more about the animals in our care, and we often do so by passing information around, rather than learning about these topics in a more formal, structured way. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but community-shared information doesn’t come without its risks: namely, that we end up playing a game of Telephone, and as information gets shared it gets watered down and misinterpreted, until no one is really sure what’s true, what’s false, and what’s somewhere in between the two.

The topic of enrichment has not been immune to this game of Telephone. Most folks in the pet community don’t realize that enrichment started in zoos, and that the concept was created to improve the welfare of captive wild animals. As such, what zoos, aviaries, and aquariums mean by enrichment is often significantly different than what pet owners and dog trainers mean. For zoos etc., enrichment is the means by which they ensure that the animals in their care are physically, behaviorally, and emotionally healthy. When the pet-owning community talks about enrichment, they generally talk about it in terms of keeping pets occupied, making their life more interesting, or giving them things to do—keeping them busy, in other words. Which, to be clear, is certainly an important aspect of enrichment! But by no means the whole picture.

During the process of writing the book, I spent a solid three months trying to get in touch with people from the zoo and dog training world who had been in this profession in the 70s and 80s, trying to figure out when and how the concept of enrichment made its way from zoos into the pet community—to no avail. No one could tell me how it happened, or when. It just… kind of… did. So it’s no wonder that much got lost in translation!

So our goal for the book was to bridge the gap between enrichment as it was originally intended, and as zoos etc. currently use it, and how the pet-owning community thinks of it. We want pet owners, behavior professionals, shelter workers, veterinarians, and anyone else in the pet community to have access to the same information that zookeepers have. We want the people in our community, which we love so much, to be empowered by more and better information.

And here’s the reason this matters so much: our community has a strong tendency to approach problems prescriptively. We look at a situation – whether it’s a specific behavior issue or just a general, overall welfare issue – and we say to ourselves, “I’m going to use positive reinforcement,” or, “I’m going to give this animal more enrichment,” or, “I’m going to provide foraging.” Those are all fabulous goals! The problem is that we tend to get stuck at the stage of our intentions, without paying much attention to whether or not our outcomes match our intentions. We often keep doing something because we believe that we’re achieving our intended goal without actually measuring whether or not we truly are. This often leads to us doing a whole lot of work without seeing a whole lot of improvement. Which can be frustrating and demoralizing.

But enrichment isn’t what we do or the things we give them; enrichment is what happens as a result of what we do and the things we give them. Toys aren’t enrichment. Playgroups aren’t enrichment. Nose work classes aren’t enrichment. All of those things have the potential to make enrichment possible, but enrichment itself doesn’t happen until the animal chooses to engage with those things, and as a result of that engagement, is able to meet one or more of their own needs. We can only know if enrichment has happened after the fact.

This approach to enrichment is descriptive, rather than prescriptive. When we learn how to take a descriptive approach to enrichment, it looks like this instead: “This dog loves to spend time with other dogs but is not currently getting enough play opportunities. So I am going to take him to some playgroups to see if playing with dogs in that setting will meet that need. Oh yes! Look! It does! Look at him having fun playing with those dogs. Wonderful. For this dog, at this stage in his life, playgroups are a good form of social interaction enrichment.” Or, “This dog is destroying my furniture when I leave her at home alone. This tells me she needs more opportunities to chew, tear, and shred appropriate objects rather than my sofa. I’m going to give her some foraging toys that have to be chewed, torn, and shredded in order to access the food. Oh look! Now that she has these toys to keep her occupied during the day she’s no longer destroying my stuff. For this dog, at this stage in her life, destructible foraging toys are a good form of foraging enrichment.”

Being able to take this descriptive, goal-oriented approach to enrichment requires an understanding of what our pet’s needs truly are. It requires learning a bit more about their species – their body language, common motivators, and species-typical behaviors – and it also requires carefully observing the individual animal in front of us to see what behaviors they’re offering, what needs they have, and how we can best meet those needs. It requires learning to see with our eyes, rather than our ideas. And all of that is very doable! We’re here to help you do exactly that.

Want to dive deeper into this topic with us? Want to learn about how taking a descriptive approach to enrichment can improve your relationship with your pet? Here are some upcoming resources which will be available soon:

  • I’m a guest on the FDSA podcast, talking about this very subject, on March 14th. The link is here.
  • I’m also doing a webinar, “Using Enrichment to Improve Your Relationship With Your Dog”, for FDSA on March 19th. The link to purchase the webinar is here.
  • Allie and I are guest authors in Books, Barks, and Banter from March 16-31st, and we’ll be going through our book one chapter at a time to discuss it in more depth with whoever wants to join us. The link to that group is here.
  • And of course, as always, if you want to chat with me directly or want information about any of the services I provide, you can always email me at [email protected]


Conversations with My Dog

A lot of people talk to their pets. I’m one of them. I ask Oso questions he’ll never be able to answer, I sing him songs that he doesn’t understand, and I occasionally throw in something that he does know like, “Do you want to go outside?” Humans are talkative beings. Sorry, Oso. But what if I told you that Oso can hold his own in some of our conversations? I sound crazy, right? Let me explain. 

This may just look like a super cute picture of Oso, but it’s actually the beginning of a conversation. Here’s what he’s saying:

Oso: *puts head on couch* I’d like to come up on the couch. 

Me: Okay, come up then.

At this point, one of two scenarios play out:

Scenario 1: 

Oso: *comes up on couch and snuggles* Hooray snuggle time!

Intense snuggling: the result of missing yesterday’s snuggles.

Scenario 2: 

Oso: *looks at me without moving his head* There’s stuff in my way.

Me: Is something in your way? You’re ridiculous. *Continues chattering while clearing space for him on the couch* Come up then. 

Oso: *looks at me without moving his head* There’s still not enough room.

The subtle eye movement here is impressive.

Me: *Sigh* You’re the worst. *Moves my legs to give him even more space*

Oso: *comes up on couch, sprawls out, and falls asleep*

Now, I’ve clearly anthropomorphized some of this. I don’t *really* know his side of the story. But, what I do know is that we very consistently have this interaction. We have both learned this way of communication from one another. His head-on-couch behavior prompts me to create space for him and he comes up after I do so. He continues to put his head on the couch because he gets the space he’s looking for and I get snuggles so I continue giving him space. It may look unconventional but it definitely qualifies as a conversation. Communication is so much more than talking.

Expanding the picture

Oso learned how to use a “head down” behavior as a conversation starter not through this couch behavior, but during our training sessions. We often start our training sessions with his nail file board. However, after he scratched for a varied length of time, he consistently would become disinterested in continuing. In the beginning I took that to mean that he wasn’t interested in continuing our training session in general and would move on to my own thing. He would continue putzing around the room, though, as if to say that he wasn’t done with the interaction. Maybe I had gotten it wrong?

Around this same time, I was teaching him a “head down” behavior as a new trick. While I don’t remember the actual interaction, my assumption is that during a training session he decided to do a “head down” behavior instead of continuing to use his nail file board and I started reinforcing him for that. We continued the session but switched to a new activity. It only took a few of these interactions for us to finally be on the same wavelength (humans are slow, aren’t we?): he wanted to continue training but didn’t want to do his nail file board anymore. 

The “head down” behavior took off after we learned how to communicate together in this way. He started doing it during training sessions any time that he wanted to switch to a new activity. I learned that he likes switching up what we’re working on far more than I was doing previously. He started doing it whenever he got frustrated because I wasn’t clear in what I wanted. He started doing it to ask to get up on the bed or when he wanted me to create space for him on the couch. He started doing it to ask for most things that he wanted (the only different one is when he wants to go outside). He learned that that behavior works for getting him things he wants.

The Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) term for this type of behavior is called, “manding”. Essentially, it means requesting something that you want. Oso learned “head down” as a manding behavior because I treated the behavior as a form of communication instead of a random or coincidental occurrence. Not only is his “head down” behavior cute and unobtrusive, it is so much less annoying than many of the behaviors he could have chosen: barking, pawing, nudging my hand. 

Here’s my challenge for you: start treating your pet’s behavior as a form of communication instead of a random occurrence. Look around and assess the situation. What could they potentially be saying to you? What has your pet “gotten” for doing this behavior in the past (attention, petting, treats, play time starts, etc.)? 

What conversations will you have with your pet?

Now what?

  • Observe your pet’s behavior free from judgment. Take away the morals– good behavior and bad behavior– and simply watch. Is there something that they do fairly regularly? 
  • After observing their behavior, start noticing the situation around that behavior. What happened before? What happens after? Again, this step should be free from judgment. 
  • Are there conversations that you and your pet already have? Your observations may uncover some form of communication that you weren’t cognizant of!
  • Is there a way that you’d like your pet to communicate with you? One of the easiest ways is to choose a behavior that your pet is already performing and reinforcing it. You can also choose to teach a new behavior and use that instead! 
  • Start training! I chose to reinforce Oso’s manding behavior not with food, but with “real life” reinforcers like access to furniture and fun training exercises. 
  • Post pics and videos of the conversations you have with your pet on our Facebook page! We’d love to see them. 

Happy training!


February 2020 Training Challenge

I can’t believe it’s already February! That means it’s time for this month’s training challenge:

Experiment with, and incorporate 1 new indoor physical activity into your pet’s repertoire. 

I’ve been talking quite a bit about “Winter Oso”: how Oso’s behavior changes in the winter when his physical activity decreases. I know many other dogs start getting “cabin fever” around this time of year so this challenge seemed fitting for February. It’s always great to have more activities that both you and your pet enjoy up your sleeve when the weather gets bad! 

Here are 10 examples of indoor physical activities that you can experiment with:

  1. Jump to target: if your pet already knows a cue to touch their nose to something (ie: your hand, tennis ball on a stick, etc.), then gradually raise the target up so they have to jump to reach it!
  2. Jump up/off furniture: if your pet is allowed on the furniture, ask them to jump up and back off several times in a row. 
  3. Recalls throughout the house: wait until your pet is farther away from you (I toss treats down the hall to get this!) then ask them to “come”. The faster they come the more treats they get!
  4. Running up and down the stairs: run with your pet or stand at the top of the stairs and have them run down and back up by tossing treats or toys down (like fetch!) Be sure to put a mat at the bottom of the stairs so they don’t slide. 
  5. Fetch (down a hallway or up/down stairs): all you need is a long hallway or set of stairs and you can play fetch inside!
  6. Tug: a great strength-building game! It’s an old wives tale that this increases aggression so tug away! 
  7. Flirt pole: these are like giant cat wand toys made for dogs. They are great for exercise and can still be done inside if you have a large enough space or small enough dog!
  8. Long-distance “place”: similar to recalls throughout the house, wait until your pet is farther away and then ask them to sit or lie on their place/mat/bed.
  9. Balance activities & other physical therapy-type activities: get out the balance boards and exercise balls! These activities require extra training and can benefit from the recommendations of a professional, but are wonderful for senior pets. 
  10. Tricks that use extra muscle (I.E. sit pretty, army crawl, etc.): another that requires training but these can be a great way to get both mental and physical exercise in in one fell swoop!

Oso and I demo several of these activities in our February 2020 Training Challenge FB Live video (find our FB videos here). 

Now what?

  1. Pick an activity that sounds fun for you and your pet. 
  2. Try it out! Whatever you pick may require some time, patience, and training. Troubleshoot if necessary!
  3. Does that activity actually wear your pet out? If yes, then it’s an appropriate form of physical exercise for them. If not, go back to step 1. 
  4. Post pics and videos of your pet enjoying their new exercise on our Facebook page
  5. Need extra help? We offer enrichment consultations for things just like this! Email Emily at [email protected] to schedule yours. 

Happy training!


January 2020 Training Challenge: Part 2

Last week we started in our our first training challenge of 2020: Draft an enrichment plan for your pet. We had just finished filling out the first two columns for Winter Oso and were about to start in on the “Priority” and “Plan of Action” columns. Let’s pick up where we left off!

Here’s where we left off:

Aspect of Enrichment Is this need being met? Agency? Priority Plan of Action
Health/Veterinary   Likely  IP: cooperative care & happy vet visits    
Hygiene   IP: working on back nails   Appropriate    
Diet/Nutrition   Likely   Appropriate    
Physical Exercise Potential Room for Growth: winter behavior   Appropriate    
Sensory Stimulation   Likely   Appropriate    
Safety   Likely   Appropriate    
Security   IP: counterconditioning to fireplace   Appropriate    
Instinctual Behaviors  Potential Room for Growth: destuffing bed in winter   Inappropriate: destuffing bed    
Foraging   Likely   Appropriate    
Social Interaction   IP: meeting more people   Appropriate    
Mental Exercise   Potential Room for Growth: winter behavior   Appropriate    
Independence   Likely   Appropriate    
Environment   Likely   Appropriate    
Calming   Likely   Appropriate    

Oftentimes when people fill out an enrichment chart for the first time they’re overwhelmed with how much there is to work on and even feel a little guilty. We all want to meet our pet’s needs as best as possible and many times seeing everything in one place lets us know that we have more work to do than we were expecting. That’s okay! Oso’s enrichment chart definitely did not look like this when I first started on his enrichment plan; you’re looking at something that’s a few years in the making. It’s okay if there’s a lot to work on! We all have to start somewhere.

To help with the overwhelm, we put the “Priority” column next. It’s unrealistic and usually unproductive to tackle everything all at once. Additionally, if you add a bunch of things at the same time you don’t necessarily which is helping to change your pet’s behavior. The systematic approach is better in the long run.

When looking at prioritizing Winter Oso’s plan, I specifically want to pay attention to the new winter behaviors that I put on his list earlier (from Part 1). The other things that we’re already working on are built into his schedule, for the most part, and are a part of our routine. I can stay at a maintenance level with those for now and mark them as lower priorities.

Aspect of Enrichment Is this need being met? Agency? Priority Plan of Action
Health/Veterinary   Likely  IP: cooperative care & happy vet visits   Low  
Hygiene   IP: working on back nails   Appropriate   Low  
Diet/Nutrition   Likely   Appropriate    
Physical Exercise Potential Room for Growth: winter behavior   Appropriate   High  
Sensory Stimulation   Likely   Appropriate    
Safety   Likely   Appropriate    
Security   IP: counterconditioning to fireplace   Appropriate   Med.  
Instinctual Behaviors  Potential Room for Growth: destuffing bed in winter   Inappropriate: destuffing bed   Med.  
Foraging   Likely   Appropriate    
Social Interaction   IP: meeting more people   Appropriate   Low  
Mental Exercise   Potential Room for Growth: winter behavior   Appropriate   High  
Independence   Likely   Appropriate    
Environment   Likely   Appropriate    
Calming   Likely   Appropriate    

You’ll see that while destuffing his bed was on our “Undesirable Behaviors” list earlier, I marked it as a lower priority here. That’s because I believed the behavior to be a result of a different category (either mental or physical activity) instead of this one. If addressing the high-level priorities didn’t change this behavior then I would address this category. [Note about prioritization: Emily and I are working on a specific Prioritization Protocol at the time of writing this but it’s not quite ready for release nor did it greatly impact this post’s content. Stay tuned!]

Finally, we can get to our plan of action. What are we going to do to address those high priority categories? Those of you who’ve recently read the Winter Oso blog post, you’ll remember that I first tried increasing how frequently we played “find it” to address mental exercise. Here’s what the chart looks like with that added in:

Aspect of Enrichment Is this need being met? Agency? Priority Plan of Action
Health/Veterinary   Likely  IP: cooperative care & happy vet visits   Low  
Hygiene   IP: working on back nails   Appropriate   Low  
Diet/Nutrition   Likely   Appropriate    
Physical Exercise Potential Room for Growth: winter behavior   Appropriate   High  
Sensory Stimulation   Likely   Appropriate    
Safety   Likely   Appropriate    
Security   IP: counterconditioning to fireplace   Appropriate   Med.  
Instinctual Behaviors  Potential Room for Growth: destuffing bed in winter   Inappropriate: destuffing bed   Med.  
Foraging   Likely   Appropriate    
Social Interaction   IP: meeting more people   Appropriate   Low  
Mental Exercise   Potential Room for Growth: winter behavior   Appropriate   High   “Find it” with all dinners
Independence   Likely   Appropriate    
Environment   Likely   Appropriate    
Calming   Likely   Appropriate    

However, I didn’t see as much of a change in his behavior. Remember: activities must serve a function to be classified as enrichment! Even those “find it” and foraging are absolutely great exercises, do meet his needs in several categories, and theoretically could address the behaviors I didn’t actually see a significant decrease in his undesirable behaviors. That means that it’s not the activity he needs at the moment. With that in mind we increased his physical activity:

Aspect of Enrichment Is this need being met? Agency? Priority Plan of Action
Health/Veterinary   Likely  IP: cooperative care & happy vet visits   Low  
Hygiene   IP: working on back nails   Appropriate   Low  
Diet/Nutrition   Likely   Appropriate    
Physical Exercise Potential Room for Growth: winter behavior   Appropriate   High   Fetch outside daily, tug inside daily
Sensory Stimulation   Likely   Appropriate    
Safety   Likely   Appropriate    
Security   IP: counterconditioning to fireplace   Appropriate   Med.  
Instinctual Behaviors  Potential Room for Growth: destuffing bed in winter   Inappropriate: destuffing bed   Med.  
Foraging   Likely   Appropriate    
Social Interaction   IP: meeting more people   Appropriate   Low  
Mental Exercise Likely   Appropriate    
Independence   Likely   Appropriate    
Environment   Likely   Appropriate    
Calming   Likely   Appropriate    

Eureka! That worked! We started with a hybrid game outside (we’ve since taught him to play fetch) and tug inside each day and that has significantly decreased his undesirable behaviors and increased the desirable ones. It was physical exercise that he was lacking!

There you have it: a full example from start to finish of creating an enrichment plan. In our experience, it takes quite a bit of practice to look at behaviors in relation to their needs, so take it slow and go easy on yourself. And remember, we’re here to help!

Now what?

  • Time to finish up your enrichment plan for your pet!
  • An enrichment plan is fine and well, but the more important part is implementing it to see if your plan is beneficial. Have fun and experiment with some new activities! Check out our book if you need some ideas for the different categories.
  • Does this seem like a lot of work? Or overwhelming? Email Emily at [email protected] for an enrichment consultation and let her create your plan for you!